Bouchillon's Back His career nearly ended by injury, Jake Bouchillon is once again playing the game he loves

In the summer of 2015, after playing through pain for more than a year, Kennesaw State senior men's tennis player Jake Bouchillon underwent back surgery that nearly ended his career. Thanks to the support of his teammates and coaches, and the bonds they created from the minute he walked on campus as a freshman, Bouchillon is back.

This is his story. In his own words...

Tennis can be a lonely sport. As a young junior player, you spend nearly every weekend traveling to various places throughout the nation. You spend the days battling on court with only your own head to sift through.

When victorious, there is no better feeling, but when things go wrong, the seclusion begins to set in. When you’re out there on the court grinding point after point, you have no one to look to, ask advice of, or to motivate you. It is solely on you.

As a junior player, tennis is a sport where you must learn mental strength or you will not last.

It is just about every young tennis player’s goal and dream to play for a collegiate team. The word “team” is rare in tennis. The opportunity to compete with multiple individuals that all share the same passions and goals is what we strive for. The thought of competing as you always have, but greatly reducing the exhausting factor of loneliness, rekindles that love for the sport.

Blessed with the opportunity to attend Kennesaw State and fulfill my lifelong goal, I had never been so ready to get started and begin competing for my university. The college journey all began when I was randomly paired with two other incoming recruits -- Simon Pritchard and David Durham -- both of which I barely knew a thing about.

David Durham, Simon Pritchard, and Jake Bouchillon as freshmen in 2013.

We instantly clicked, and after only a few shoulder bumps, we became the best of friends. That “team” I strived to be a part of for so long was beginning to form. From this point forward there was rarely references to individuals; we trained together, we worked together, we celebrated together, and we cried together. As coach would say, “No Owls left behind.”

The team spends countless hours together. We work relentlessly to prove ourselves.

Playing on a team was relatively new for me. I was overwhelmed with the sense of responsibility. My actions no longer solely reflected on my own personal image. Every step I took played a role in the team’s success, the program’s reputation, and Kennesaw State University’s image.

Tennis at Kennesaw State is a family affair. The fathers of Drew Lahey (Tom), Manuel Castellanos (Tancredo) and Jake Bouchillon (Michael), played college tennis together on the same team at Georgia College.

Going into my first spring season, I had never been so excited. Knowing I had done everything I could to prepare, I was ecstatic about competing for my team and my university. I began my collegiate career with a singles and doubles victory but overall the team lost the head-to-head match. I was quickly introduced to the new importance of a team performance. No one could do it by themselves, we all had to work and perform well together in order to secure the team win.

My rookie season was going great. As a team, we were showing great progress, we had some great results, our chemistry continued to grow, and we were developing along the way.

I faced my first bump in the road when we were playing against Presbyterian. My doubles partner, David Durham, and I were up significantly in our match. With only a few points left to secure the doubles win and overall deciding doubles point, I extended at the net for a high forehand volley.

As soon as I reached out, I felt a shooting pain that originated in my back then stemmed throughout my legs. Not thinking much of it, and caught up in the moment, I attempted to finish the match out. I did what I could to keep the ball in play, but the pain escalated to the point I struggled to move.

Fortunately, as our opponents began to rally back, our other doubles pair clinched the doubles point. I was in no shape to continue on to my singles match so my teammate, Alex Pena, filled in for me and had a great performance.

Two weeks went by and I was praying my back would sort itself out, yet it only got worse. Having gone through injuries and surgery before, I was timid to verbalize my concern to our athletic trainer.

The pain got to the point where I had to do something, so we went for an X-ray and MRI. The results came back and I was informed that I had a Grade 2 spondylolisthesis, which, in simple terms, is the slippage of a vertebra over the one below it.

The cause was unknown. It could have happened when I stretched for that volley, or it could have been something that had gone unnoticed and flared up. Regardless, I was referred to a specialist, who recommended treatment and rehab.

I became a regular visitor for the Owls athletic trainer staff, who had the “joy” of dealing with me for about an hour before and after practice every day.

Unfortunately, the rehab only helped to an extent. The pain never left, nor did my drive to contribute to the team.

I was deteriorating and the pain was getting worse.

While battling through pain as a sophomore, Jake teamed with Manuel Castellanos to win their doubles flight at Georgia Tech.

By the following spring season, I could barely make it through a two-set singles match, and doubles was out of the question. Depending on how I woke up that day, I potentially could muster the fight to compete in singles. I was not able to lift and I was not able to condition.

Everyday tasks such as getting dressed, walking around, and sleeping became painful.

Given all of this, there was still nothing more I wanted then to continue living on my dream and competing with my team. I was committed to letting nothing prevent that.

I tried everything to help me get by, including a few steroid shots, countless hours of rehab and stretching, chiropractors, needling, the list goes on.

My solutions were running thin and the pain was only worse.

One of the toughest moments in my life came in the first round of the ASUN Conference Tournament in my sophomore year. I would have no Idea it would be the last dual match I would compete in for nearly two years.

In that match, I reached the point where I was hardly able to walk. Playing through pain had become second nature, but this was too much. I lost that match, and we lost as a team. It was tough for me to bear the responsibility for the loss and knowing I’d let my teammates down.

Jake in action at the University of Georgia in the fall of 2014.

Never once did they point the finger. Instead, I knew I had the support of every individual on the team including my coach, Eduardo Rincon, and trainer, Lisa Bewley.

After finally seeing a neurosurgeon, it became clear. With my bone slippage increasing to a Grade 4 (Grade 5 is the worst), I faced possible permanent nerve damage and surgery was my only option if I wanted to live a life without pain.

My future in tennis was now unknown.

On July 14, 2015, I went into the operating room for fusion of the two vertebrae to align my spine. The surgery was supposed to last three hours. Mine took eight.

The road to recovery was grueling -- 100 days in a back brace with absolutely no twisting and bending. That’s pretty hard for a guy that was used to moving 24/7. Along the way, I faced a slippage of the fusion but luckily the fusion began to take hold. I began basic rehab once out of the back brace. Miraculously, my doctor cleared me to start hitting again just six months after my surgery.

Remember how I mentioned that tennis can be a lonely sport?

Well, thanks to my KSU team I never felt I was fighting this battle alone. Lisa Bewley came to every doctor’s appointment and my coach and teammates encouraged me to keep striving each day to rebuild my body. No one ever made me feel like dead weight, they just continued to push me towards recovery.

Coach Rincon, and his daughters Ana Maria and Kathryn Cristina, pay Jake a visit following his surgery.

I worked my entire junior year to regain my tennis game and had someone assisting me every step of the way. I had the opportunity to still travel to some of the matches and contribute in other ways (i.e. water boy).

When I stepped on the court to play doubles on this past September, it marked the first time in more than 500 days that I played a competitive match for my Owls.

Ultimately, I learned a lot throughout the hardship. I believe I have come out a much stronger individual and teammate. I am more thankful than ever to be back on the tennis court and feeling 100%.

I still receive motivation from my teammates and I believe we have all gained a greater level of respect for each other.

Now back to full strength, Bouchillon went 6-1 with doubles partner Drew Lahey in the fall season. He's also playing in the Owls' singles lineup this spring.

There is absolutely no way I would have made it through the whole process on my own. Thanks to the support from my teammates and the Owls, I am feeling confident for one last ride in this, my senior year.

I have learned the true value in teamwork. I’m thankful every day for college tennis.

And to my teammates: Thank you for never leaving an Owl behind.

Portrait photos by Kyle Hess


Kyle Hess

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